I said kaddish for the first time this past Saturday. It was to mourn a dear aunt who recently passed away. Growing up, my parents and siblings would stay at her place when we visited Israel, and we experienced her kindness and generosity in countless ways. My aunt spoke little or no English. We used to laugh at her offering “At rotzah kitchen” while placing a piece of chicken on a plate. It is hard to believe now, but I used to speak Hebrew okay. My aunt and I got by.
After my bar mitzvah, I ceased my education in things religious and in Hebrew. For whatever reason, I began to study Arabic, stringing together coursework and language institutes in the latter half of the 1990s. In 2004, I found myself in East Jerusalem on a program review for a USAID contractor. Between trips to Ramallah and Gaza, I took the bus to visit relatives in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv. At the time, my Arabic, such as it was, far surpassed my command of Hebrew, and the irony of facing my aunts — who had fled Baghdad in the 1950s to settle in the new state of Israel — with my language skills fleeing in the inverse direction was unsettling. Stumbling through stock phrases, I could barely communicate with my eldest aunt. But I looked like my father — her youngest brother — at the same age, and that seemed to be enough to bond us without words.
Now she is gone.
As I said, I ended my religious education a bit young — yet old enough to be considered a man. Most of the prayers I had half learned. I feel lost in synagogues. I do what comes most naturally, what I have always done to get by: murmur a few consonants and move my lips very quickly hoping that no one notices. This time, though, I wanted things to be different. I looked up the kaddish and practiced the lines carefully, trying to read Hebrew and only peeking at the transliteration in the Roman alphabet to correct a few ambiguities. I listened to online recordings of Iraqi and Syrian hazans intoning the prayer. But I had hardly memorized it.
Last Saturday, I traveled over an hour to attend services at a Sephardic congregation in the South Bay (I live in Oakland). There, the rabbi came to introduce himself and learn about this new face. Upon hearing my last name, he asked where my family was from. “We’re Baghdadi Jews — on my father’s side,” I said. I smiled with some pride when he responded, “That’s the real deal!” When he learned why I had come, he told me to wait for the kaddish. Towards the end of the service, he led me up with other mourners to stand in front of the hekhal where the Torahs are kept. Together we recited the prayer for the dead, the rabbi standing beside me on the right. His voice boomed with confidence, rapidly articulating every word. At one point, he and the other mourners leaned to the right. I had no idea why they did this, but I leaned right as well, perhaps a couple of seconds too late. I did the best I could, but I was sure the rabbi caught on that I was moving my mouth at times, allowing random sounds to come out — not necessarily the ones indicated on the page. I could have been ashamed or embarrassed. That’s how I usually feel in a synagogue.
This time, however, was different. I was savoring the chance to communicate with my aunt. I was making up for that moment eight years ago when my words failed me.